Come on inside, brother and sister, just make sure you close the door tight to keep out the draft. Welcome, welcome, welcome. You’re right on time. It’s 11 sharp on a Sunday morning at Pine Grove Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church. It’s a long name for such a little churchnot much bigger than a double-wide trailerbut there’s plenty of room inside. Have a seat and grab a hymnbook. The pews are less than half full, and that includes babies and a 93-year-old woman who’s been coming here since the Depression.
The heat’s just barely kicking in, and many of the two dozen parishioners have kept their coats on. They stand and sing gospel songs to get their blood flowing, while, up near the pulpit, Pastor Elijah Byrd strums a beaten-up acoustic guitar and his wife Joy plays the piano. On the wall behind Byrd hangs the church’s sole decoration: a faded velvet tapestry of the Last Supper, a visitor’s gift to the congregation years ago. To fill up the place, the Pine Grovers use musictired old hymns that everybody knows the words to, like “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “When the Saints Come Marching In”and at least part of the melodies. No matter that the renditions are wildly off-key and out of tune. The group noise does the job done just fine, chasing away the emptiness and helping the congregation focus on God.
After the music ekes to an end, Joy Byrd, her blond hair hanging to her waist in a way that seems somehow severe rather than wanton, stands up from behind the piano to make an announcement. Her smiling face seems the picture of peace-be-with-you contentment, as if she’s about to give some good news about the holiday canned food drive. Instead, she’s declaring war.
“Friday I had lunch with an atheist, an agnostic, and one who had no idea what any of us were talking aboutwhat a combination!” she begins with a bemused chuckle. “But I can tell you one thing for sure: Jesus is coming back for those that believe.” Then, without warning, she turns into a scowling Harpy, as she grouses about how tough it can be for a real-live Christian today. “I don’t care what they say to you down here!” she shrieks. “I don’t care what they do to you down here or how much they gang up on you down here. We are on the winning side! No matter the cost, it’s worth it all! Worth it all! Worth it all!”
The spiteful homily spurs the congregation to shouts of assent, but then it ends as abruptly as it began. That’s how things tend to work at Pine Grove: spontaneous, emotional outbursts that seem to happen of their own accord and die the same way. The church members call it the movement of the Holy Ghost, and they let it take them where it may.
Pastor Byrd looks sympathetically at his frazzled wife as she makes her way to her seat in the front pew. “I thought Mrs. Byrd was going to preach this morning and then we could go home,” he says with a slight grin. “But she quit in the middle of it, didn’t she?”
Byrd is the only person dressed formally at this service. He wears a funereal black suit that hangs baggy on his short frame, his compactness accentuated by a pair of pointed cowboy boots poking out at the bottoms of his stumpy legs. A humble, average man, there’s not a whiff of sanctimony about him. Instead of a gold watch, he’s got a pager and a bunch of keys swinging from his belt, and he walks and talks like the West Virginia construction worker he once was. Glad-handing his parishioners at the front door, he seems a likable, bland sort with a thoroughly forgettable face and demeanor.
But let him get to preaching, and he’s a changed man, every inch the fierce Old Testament prophet he’s named after. This morning, he too has a chip on his shoulderthere seem to be plenty to go around at Pine Grove. Barely a minute into his sermon, he’s testifying about his down-market townhouse in the poor part of Prince William County, Va.: “I may have to live in that little ol’ dumpy place called Dumfries, but my Bible says that Jesus has prepared for me a mansion!” he screams, stomping the carpeted floor. “I don’t care if it’s a one-bedroom or a four-bedroom. I don’t care if it’s got 50 bedrooms. The only thing I care about is that Jesus is going to light my mansion! I won’t have to worry about a light switch. I won’t have to worry about a power failure, because the power will be eternal!”
Taking a dramatic pause, Byrd wipes his glistening face with a handkerchief. Some weep, apparently with joy, while a babyhiding in his father’s armswimpers from all the hollering. Byrd whispers a hoarse apology for getting so caught up in himself, when all he really wants is to stay true to “the Word.” His sermons follow this crash-and-burn cycle: One minute, he’s dancing spastically and windmilling down the aisle, and the next he’s standing silent and still, slumped over, broken and ashamed of his ecstatic ranting.
It’s not long before he’s fired up all over again, chasing another metaphor.
“The government says that we have to build a bridge to 2000 and beyond, as though time’s gonna go on forever,” smirks Byrd. “You see how our government thinks? Now, I’m not saying stop everything you’re doing and just get on top of a mountain and start looking for Jesus to come back. I’m not teaching you to do something stupid or foolish. I am trying to tell you, though, in everything you are doing, make sure Jesus is on your mind!” Byrd warns that the day of reckoning could come at any time and, most likely, at some unexpected, supremely mundane moment. He rocks back and forth on his boots and points at a woman in a back pew: “One of these days, Sister Florence, you’re gonna be at the Safeway, stocking or inventorying or whatever it is you do, and somebody’s gonna tell you you’re gonna have to hurry up. And all of the sudden, you’re gonna hurry uphurry right straight up into the clouds!”
A weary-looking woman, Sister Florence raises her hands and chants Hallelujah. Her eyes are shut tight, but that doesn’t stop the tears from trickling out. She knows she’s going to the mansion in the sky, and if the Lord calls her when she’s on the night shift in the frozen food section, so much the better.
At Pine Grove, Protestant theology gets boiled down to the basics: the Second Coming, an eternal afterlife, and most important of all, the redemption of the sinner. Worldly goods and concerns are of little consequence to the faithful present. The church’s motto, which graced an ad that ran for years in a local paper, is “Reaching Out to Those Who Are Rejected.” This is the refuge for those who just don’t fit in: for Pentecostals who’ve been shunned because they’re unable to speak in tongues, for those who’ve been mocked because they weep when they worship, for those who can’t find a place in the big congregations. There’s room for all at this rock bottom of religion.
Byrd understands his once-forsaken flock all too well. He’s a former drunkard who was denied ordination by another Pentecostal denomination because he was divorced. At Pine Grove, though, they had faith in him, and they took him in. Now he’s head of the congregation, trying to lead his “precious lambs” to salvation. They are a small, hardy flocktwo dozen regulars at most. But despite all the frenzied talk about eternity, time in the here and now may be running out for the little country church, locked in the past and lost in suburbia.
There is no pine grove hereabouts, and there hasn’t been for years. Only the obligatory saplings among the shopping centers of massive hyperdevelopment. The tiny church has been swallowed whole by a suburban Babylon it must abideeven, sinfully, occasionally partake ofbut can never fully embrace. Across the way looms one of the world’s largest discount malls, Potomac Mills. It doesn’t so much overshadow the church as render it a nonentity. Pinched among all the neon and commerce, the church seems about as welcome as the vagrants who bum change on the median strips during rush hour.
Nobody has been clamoring for the Pine Grovers to hang around, that’s for sure. Through the years, the congregation has spurned every offer to sell the church property, estimated to be worth $2 million. Money means nothing to the congregation. The building was paid off decades ago, and they don’t pay any taxes on the land so prized by developers. “We’re going to stay right here until the Lord tells us to move,” says Byrd. Their God is not the sort to sell out easily.
To the Pine Grovers’ way of thinking, they’re exactly where they’re supposed to beright in the thick of things. Call it naiveté or plain mulishness, they refuse to buckle to the cultural and material forces right outside their door. Their inertia in the face of progress has become their badge of honor, something that sets them apart.
During the raucous services, the world outside the thin walls is nothing more than a bad rumor. The nonstop traffic and bombast fade to a barely noticeable drone, a nuisance not worth a trifle. Inside their sanctuary, the Pine Grovers will not be denied.
“You better listen to me!” warns Byrd. “Our church is not going to be saved with a series of services with special guest speakers and special guest singers! That’s not a revival! Revival starts in the house of Godnot in the streets, not in the community, not in your homes! But here, here, here in the house of God!”
In moments like these, when Byrd is really on a rollhis coat flung to the floor and his starched shirt pocked by sweat stains, when the congregation is stoked and the screaming and crying and wailing hit crescendo after crescendo, it seems the building is about ready to burst from the sheer volume squeezed into such a little place. The parishioners are clapping and stamping their feet, and the noise somehow gets louder and louder until even the piercing wails of the babies are drowned out, and Pine Grove Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church literally trembles from all the commotion.
“We need to see some bobby pins and some hair clips flying!” shouts Byrd. “Some people walk out of church, and every stitch of clothing is perfect, and that Sure deodorant hasn’t run down their ribcage, and they smell as pretty going out as they did going in. My gosh, church! Let me have a churchful of people that come in smelling pretty and go out smelling like a bunch of old hogs! Glory to God! I want to see somebody get excited about the blood. About the blood! The blood! God, revive us again!”
The only unredeemable sin at Pine Grove is to be left unmoved in the presence of the Holy Ghost.
One day, the earth may simply swallow Pine Grove Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church once and for all. The ground will open up in a gaping hole, and the little white building and the propane tanks and the storage sheds and the tombstonesthe whole ramshackle mess of old wood, vinyl siding, blood-red pew cushions, and musty hymnbookswill sink with a pathetic groan into the abyss. And there won’t be anything left but a cloud of dust.
The job is already partly done, not by nature but by rampant development. Over the decades, the road that passes in front of Pine Grove has grown from a winding backwoods two-laner into a busy six-lane thoroughfare. The road’s ceaseless expansion has effectively lowered the church property 15 feet down in an ever-deepening hole, a dirt-and-gravel pit that doubles as the parking lot. There is no sign or steeple to denote Pine Grove as a house of worship, only a street number above the front door, but even that serves little purpose, because the postal carrier refuses to make the treacherous descent. Instead, the church mailbox sits across the road, where bulldozers are busy flattening another commercial site.
But the encroaching road is only one battle front for the bunkered site. The 2-acre property is hemmed in on all sides. Less than 20 feet behind stretches a strip shopping center; it features an Outback restaurant that even on a slow day has more cars in its parking lot than Pine Grove’s does on Easter Sunday. To the north side, through a buffer of scrawny junipers provided by a developer, rises a Mobil station, open 24 hours a day.
Farther outand for miles aroundsprawls a denuded, leveled landscape so crassly commercialized it makes even the Rockville Pike strip and Tyson’s Corner seem quaint, bucolic throwbacks. It’s a retail war zone that renders the sunken church not just an eyesore but an archaeological excavation. As the oldest building around, Pine Grove is a reminder that actual people once farmed and lived and worshiped on this land before the Age of Price Clubs.
Instead of enjoying status as a historical landmark, though, the building is regarded as a civic embarrassment, an unremarkable relic from the Depression grossly misplaced. Across the nearby intersection, the milelong discount outlet center of Potomac Mills features a glutton’s food court and closed-circuit broadcasts of soothing crooners like Cat Stevens (in his pre-Muslim incarnation). It attracts more than a million visitors a year. Every day, cars and buses from all over the continent converge at the Interstate 95 exit, surging past Pine Grove to the bargain shopper’s paradise.
“If you look at the growth that has been around that church, it is absolutely phenomenal,” says the Rev. Don Sauls, former superintendent of Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church Inc., a North Carolina-based organization to which Pine Grove belongs. “But [the church members] did not have the vision for growth or the change in methodology to fit the times in which they’re living, and consequently what happened was society passed them by.”
The Pine Grovers don’t think they’re missing much, and they see no point in trying to play catch-up to a world gone mostly wrong. Indeed, the specter of Potomac Mills doesn’t seem to rankle Byrd, at least not when he’s out of the pulpit. He’s far too practical to make the obligatory God vs. Mammon argument against greedy developers. In fact, he buys his $100 suits ($120 after alterations) and his Acme cowboy boots ($40) at the mall. But he admits that he wishes the tract had been left as woods, renowned in past years for plentiful deer and rabbit and squirrel and turkey, not to mention local cockfighting matches.
Byrd is a dedicated woodsmen, and he hunts regularly on a friend’s land on the Cherry Hill peninsula near the Potomac River; he says he does it more for the solitude it provides than the meat, which he usually donates to charity. It is out in the woods that he often gets inspiration for his sermons, and he carries a pocket-size computer that has the complete text of the Bible. While in a pre-dawn stand waiting for deer, he punches up a passage and starts praying.
The weekly trip to the woods is all the medicine Byrd needs, just enough to get him right with his God. He’s a pastor with a flock that depends on him, not some mystical hermit. “I’m not here to stop progress; I’m here to preach the gospel, and that mall’s not going to hinder what I have to do,” he says. “I’m a country boy, so I’d just as soon it’d be farmland. I’d much rather go over there to go fishing or hunting than to go shopping. But heythey’re here.”
Render unto Ikea what is Ikea’s. For Byrd and his flock, the mall is less an enemy than another place to stretch a dollar a little further. Far more threatening to Pine Grove are the megachurches that have sprung up along with the shopping centers.
From the church parking lot, you can see an impressive, snow-white steeple on the skyline, right on the edge of I-95. It is the crowning glory of the multimillion-dollar Hylton Memorial Chapel, not properly a church but a so-called “Christian event center.” The gargantuan building, featuring faux-Colonial architecture with columns, has an auditorium that seats 4,000 for nondenominational events. Since its opening in 1995, Hylton Chapel has hosted a slew of mass evangelical gatherings, starring the usual crew of Christian celebrities: Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney, 700 Club lackey Ben Kinchlow, and TV preacher Rex Humbard, not to mention gospel performers like Shirley Caesar.
A monument not only to vanity but to spectacularly bad taste, the chapel is named for Cecil Hylton, the wealthy developer who built most of the Dale City and Woodbridge suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. A farm boy from southwestern Virginia, Hylton made his fortune in the postwar boom years, hustling sod before carving subdivisions out of his extensive land holdings. (He named Dale City after his wife.) A pious and painfully shy man, he grew up attending a rural church much like Pine Grove. After his death, his family donated funds for the chapel that bears his name on its wrought-iron, Xanadu-style entrance gates. Its proximity to Pine Grove makes a nifty tableau of a pilgrim’s mercurial (and material) progress. Imagine if Graceland had been built within hog-calling distance of Elvis’ birth shack in Tupelo.
Though he has never been to the chapel, Byrd doth not covet his neighbor’s sky-high bounty. In fact, he says the Hylton family has been good to his church. Several times, the Hyltons have donated the use of a grading machine to spread gravel on the Pine Grove parking lot, which in wet, cold weather crumbles into a morass of gullies and potholes. Only in his sermons does he reveal any resentment, once referring to the chapel’s lavish indoor baptismal pool as something he admires but does not allow himself to crave. In Byrd’s version of the spiritual world, a baptism is just as real and sanctified when conducted in the nearby Potomac, a backwoods pond, or a relative’s swimming pool as in some fancy, state-of-the-art facility.
Like Potomac Mills, Hylton Memorial Chapel couldn’t survive if it simply drew on the surrounding area. It has to market its version of religion far and wide to fill up all those pews. Other churches go beyond accepting the commercial context of the area, simply burrowing in, CVS-like, to available shopping-center spaces. The Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Woodbridge holds services in an old Safeway, attracting a thousand worshipers to its baby-boomer born-again Christianity.
And just down the street from Pine Grove, skirting the back parking lot of Potomac Mills, sits Christ Chapel, a spiffy brick-and-stained-glass shrine not much smaller than the Hylton. The 9-year-old Assemblies of God church has an auditorium that seats 1,500 worshipers; the complex also features a day-care center and a gymnasium. Among countless seminars and activities, Christ Chapel even sponsors a “Young Singles” workshop. The church’s marquee offers a bullish assessment of its own future: “LAST WEEK 32 FAMILIES JOINED THIS CHURCHHOW ABOUT YOU AND YOURS?”
Byrd is well aware of the immense appeal of the megachurches, with their spacious facilities, modern amenities, and myriad services. But he says he’s comfortable in the small, intimate setting of Pine Grove. “It’s not a matter of how big a church is or how much money you make or how much prestige there is,” he says. “The only way to count success in ministry is, do you stay true to your calling ’til you take your last breath. If God calls you to pastor 10 people or 10,000, do you stay true to what God calls you to dothat’s successful ministry.”
With a present membership of two dozen parishioners, Byrd says he’s got plenty of ministering to keep him busy. He says he’s had offers to preach at other churches, but the Lord told him to stay at Pine Grove. Sure, he’d like to see his church filled to its capacity of 100 some day, but he’s not going to worry about such things now. He’s got enough problems trying to keep the parking lot filled with gravel, since muck washes down the hill every time it rains.
Pine Grove isn’t the sort of congregation that worries about keeping up with its neighbors. Not only is such striving foolhardy considering the parishioners’ lack of wealth, it goes against their beliefs. “I really don’t feel that it’s a competition, and I think that Christians who feel that they’re in competition with one another have the wrong mind-set,” says Pine Grove assistant pastor Theresa Ramsey, who has attended services at many local churches, including Christ Chapel. “I don’t believe the Bible says there should be any sibling rivalry. I’m pleased that more brothers and sisters in Christ are going to be ministered to, as long as they’re going to a church that’s rooted and grounded in the truth. That’s what it’s all about, because we’re all going to heaven together.”
Only six years ago, the future of Pine Grove looked even bleaker than it does now. The Rev. O.H. Mason, the pastor for nearly three decades, had died, and attendance was down. Local business leaders were grumbling about the unsightly building on the last chunk of prime real estate around. Back then, the church still had a crude wooden cross nailed over the front door, and, worse still, there were a pair of outhouses on the property, not the sort of thing for tourists to see on their way to the shiny commercial playground of Potomac Mills.
Nevertheless, as with many a small, tightknit church, adversity only made the congregation stronger. It rallied around Byrd, who was elected the new pastor; parishioners who hadn’t come for years started showing up for Sunday services again. Pine Grove embarked on what was, for it, a major construction project, forsaking a new steeple or more pew space and instead adding a front foyer with wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. The expansion eventually cost more than $20,000, including a $10,000 fee to tap into the county’s water and sewer lines. It would have cost much more, but Byrd, an experienced electrician and carpenter, did the work himself, along with volunteers from the congregation. During the construction, he adds, the gas station graciously allowed church members to use its bathrooms.
County officials and business leaders were delighted that Pine Grove finally had indoor plumbing, but they also made it clear that if the church intended to expand in the future, it would first have to pave its parking lotthe final unlandscaped frontier of gravel and Virginia hardpan dirt in Dale City. “They knew when we put in bathrooms that we planned to be here for a while,” says Byrd. But any plans for a paved lot remain distant; though the church owns the building outright and pays no taxes, the expansion project depleted church funds, and the collection basket passed around at every service goes only far enough to pay the heat and electric bills and for missionary work.
The new Pine Grove Church had received its much-needed makeover. There were new pews and wall-to-wall carpeting, along with shiny ceiling-fan lights and a PA system. The building’s ragged exterior was also spiffed up, receiving a new roof and vinyl siding that rendered an annual paint job unnecessary. Best of all, the flock was packing the place.
But the revival that gripped Pine Grove after Mason’s death didn’t last. Satisfied that the church would roll on, parishioners drifted away from the fold. Others simply moved away from the areaa chronic challenge in a transient kingdom like Northern Virginia. Military families and government workers have always been a part of the congregation, and many attend for a few years while stationed here before returning to their home churches.
Pine Grove’s old-fashioned, unstructured serviceslike its old-fashioned, wood-frame buildinghave become hopelessly moribund for all but the handful of the faithful, even as Pine Grove still provides a balm for its dwindling flock. “That is not a typical Pentecostal Free Will Baptist church,” says Sauls. “It is very abnormal. In fact, I would say that it’s the most unusual of any in our denomination. That church has seen a tremendous amount of people passing through there that didn’t necessarily stay.”
Like Christian churches of old, Pine Grove is a literally a sanctuary, a place so tightly cinched against the future that the outside world rarely leaks in.
“We are not so easily blown about, God. We have a sure confidence in your word. We have a sure trust in you tonight. We have a sure hope in you tonight, God. And that confidence is not shaken that our God is watching over us, that our God tonight is in charge, that the enemy is not in charge, that you are in charge.”
On a Wednesday evening, Sister Marna Witt is blessing the weekly Bible study meeting at Pine Grove. Only a few have made the trip on this bitterly cold night, including the Byrds, who sit quietly in a back pew, and a homeless man who is staying at a nearby hypothermia emergency shelter. Originally from Poland, he’s maybe 50 rough-and-tumble years going on dead, and he reeks of cheap booze. Bundled in stained sports gear and a Walkman and weighted by a bulging knapsack, he makes plans in broken English to do odd jobs around the church for Byrd, who treats him more like a deacon than a drifter.
Sauls admires Pine Grove’s willingness to take in strays, but worries that it turns the church into a halfway house for lost souls as much as a place to nourish healthy ones. “These are very compassionate people,” says Sauls. “They are reaching out to a lot of people who are down on their luck. People who don’t have much of the world’s goods can go into that simplistic setting and feel very comfortable.”
Witt has lived in the area for years, but only recently joined the church. Disillusioned and frustrated, she had been on a spiritual search, and Pine Grove beckoned her. “It was like, one day the Lord put a spotlight on it,” she says. “He was calling me to be here; that’s the best way I can explain it.” A longtime teacher, she now leads the Bible study meetings and also acts as the church’s mission leader. Like many of the parishioners, she sees the church as a full-time occupation; there are activities nearly every day of the week. “The longer I’m here,” she says, “the more balanced I feel.”
Dressed in a knit sweater emblazoned with the letters of the alphabet, Witt wields a Bible as large and floppy as a phone book, its wide margins densely scribbled with her own meticulous annotations. A follower of the Word through and through, she is a no-nonsense woman, and it doesn’t take her long to fire up her own sermon tonight, based on a reading from Proverbs: Every wise woman buildeth her house, but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands. She repeats the sentence several times, lingering over the archaic language as a connoisseur of the scriptures is wont to do. “We’re going to focus purely on this one verse,” she says. “That’s as far as we’re going tonight, on this one verse.” Much of the preaching at Pine Grove follows this pattern, spinning an entire sermon from a single sentence of scripture.
The moral of this parable is obvious, says Witt. In today’s society, many women (and men as well) have abandoned their homes for careers and other diversions, epitomized mostly by an addictive and spiritually empty consumerism. “We live in a rather lush area,” she says sarcastically. “Oh, you can find a store in any direction you want to go to. You can find more eating places and gastronomical successes in any direction. Any kind of food, any kind of clothes, any kind of anything you want, it’s all over the place!”
The glittering world of the malls is just an illusion, of course. What has happened is that everybody has become alienated and pleasure-seeking, says Witt, and people have lost contact with their spouses and their childrenthe very relationships that give life meaning. “We’ve even lost the dinner table!” she hisses. “We need that time! Nothing substitutes for that! Nothing! Spending time with our families and with one another. We need to be builders.”
Witt preaches on, veering in all directions to denounce the selfish, modern waysbut then she stops on a dime when her time is up. Unlike Sunday services, the Wednesday gatherings are strictly one hour long. This isn’t a time to be saved, necessarily, but to be nourished in the Word. Church members chat for a while and finally head for their cars.
Outside, by the side of the church, the Polish man straddles a rusty bicycle, the surest sign of dire poverty in these car-crazy parts. He says he was raised a Catholic, but he enjoys attending services at Pine Grove. “I like the or-a-tor-y,” he says, pronouncing the word carefully and then confirming that he has used it correctly. “See you Sunday.” Then, as an oldies station screeches from his earphones, he steers his wobbling two-wheeled wreck into the darkness, his heart filled with the Word and his path guided by the hand of his Lord.
When Ramsey first attended Pine Grove Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church in the mid-’60s, she was a young girl, barely 7 years old. Her mother, a Pentecostal, belonged to another local congregation, but one Sunday she took her daughter to the little white church nestled in a pine thicket off a winding country road. Ramsey has fond memories of that visit, but she doesn’t recall any specific sermons or hymns, simply the cozy feel of the place, which was made especially warm by a wood stove in the corner and the kind ways of Mason and his wife.
Ramsey’s spiritual awakening would come a decade later, when she was attending a weeklong revival at a country church down in Orange County, Va. “One particular night, I was at the altar, praying, with my aunt and mother around me, and I just received it,” she says. “I just began to speak different words. They were words that I did not understand, but I just began to speak, and that was a symbol of being in-dwelled by the Spirit, and if you look at that in Acts, Chapter 2, you’ll see the same thing happening.”
That was the first time that Ramsey says she “spoke in tongues,” her faith’s quintessential spiritual experience. Pentecostals believe that their roots extend back to the day of the Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost came to comfort the Apostles after the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire, and it sat upon each of them,” according to the passage from Acts. “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
In the early ’80s, after Ramsey married and moved back to the Dale City area, she began looking for a local church at which to lay down roots. She visited Pine Grove again, and she was impressed by its plain but profound worship service, its intimate ambience, and its pastor, Mason. “He was very personable, and you could sense that he had a genuine love and concern for people, and I guess that was what drew me,” she says. “I did visit around at other churches, but Pine Grove felt like home to me, so that’s why I stayed. What drew me most was the spirit of the Lord that’s present there.”
Mason was the fourth pastor (the second was a woman) in Pine Grove’s long existence, which dated back to the Depression. In the late ’30s, a group of locals began to gather and pray in the outdoor brush-arbor tradition in a pine thicket near where the church now stands. In the early ’40s, the congregation decided to build a house of worship in the grove. During the construction, it held services on the pile of lumber that was to be the church.
Originally, the church was known as the Pine Grove Community and Free Will Baptist Hold, but by the time Mason took over in 1964 it had long since assumed its Pentecostal incarnation. A burly and charismatic man, Mason was known as “the Big O” to friends; he was a staunch practitioner of old-time camp-meeting religion, and the services he conducted were volatile, fire-and-brimstone spectacles. He led the congregation in song on a battered acoustic guitar, backed by his wife Audrey, who played tambourine.
Audrey Mason still attends Sunday services, weather and health permitting, accompanied by Pine Grove’s only surviving charter member, 93-year-old Ethel Davis, whose husband is buried in the graveyard behind the church. Mason, a round, cheerful woman, plays her old tambourine from her usual spot in the second pew and remains one of the most beloved church elders.
Sauls first attended one of Mason’s primitive worship services in the ’60s, and he has seen many more since, while making his rounds as superintendent of Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church Inc. “When I first started going to Pine Grove, it was sitting right in the middle of a pine thicket,” he recalls. “Mr. Mason was a good man, but he was a very country, uneducated man. It was a very simplistic and honest and sincere worship service, and he attracted the kind of people that needed to hear that.”
And that’s the way services have remained at Pine Grove. Though the church is a member of the Dunn, N.C.-based organization, it is, for the most part, totally independent in everything it does, from its idiosyncratic style of worship to its lack of a steeple. Although its pastors are ordained at a school in Dunn and many of its doctrines are similar, Pine Grove breaks from its governing group in one major aspect, demanding that its deacons possess an “in-dwelling” of the Holy Spirit.
Around 1990, Sauls, then still superintendent of the parent organization, preached a revival at Pine Grove, and he was impressed by how little had changed, despite the church’s proximity to the bustling suburban development. According to him, even remote country churches in his native Carolina had updated their sermons, music, and overall presentation. Not Pine Groveit was comfortably situated in a time warp, and for Sauls, it was by no means a quaint blast from the past. “You want to be contemporary with your culture,” says Sauls, who now preaches at his own church, which boasts a congregation of 100. “The message of the gospel hasn’t changedthat’s centuries old. But the methodology must be in a constant state of change to fit the changing culture that you find yourself in. Otherwise, you’re answering questions that aren’t being asked and solving problems that don’t exist. And at Pine Grove, they just refused to change.”
Ramsey finds a spiritual anchor in the church’s constancy; it is something she can depend on in an uncertain world. “There was a gentleman who came to visit, and he asked, ‘Why would you build a little country church in the middle of the city?’ I said, ‘No, we were here first. They built around us, you know.’ That really tickled me, but I believe we really have been able to preserve the atmosphere of a country church.”
But too much of that old-time religion can be debilitating in the long run, according to Sauls. He attended a Byrd service in recent years and had the same sensation as before: The Pine Grovers were trapped in a bygone era, not only in their style of worship but in the setting itself, with babies bawling at the fiery sermons. Even after the improvements, the 60-year-old building simply didn’t have the sort of amenities that would allow the flock to grow into the next century. “People are looking for convenience, and that applies to their worship as well,” says Sauls. “They want a comfortable, beautiful surrounding where the needs of the family can be met.”
Sauls believes that when Mason had a chance to help Pine Grove move into the modern world, he should have grabbed it. It was the early ’80s, and Potomac Mills developers approached the stubborn preacher with an offer to buy the property and build a new church on another parcel. Mason thanked them kindly for the offer but said he had a vow to uphold and sacred ground to protect. The proposed move would have desecrated the church graveyardwhich holds the remains of more than a dozen parishionersand he had promised to honor the elders’ last wishes, that their bones rest undisturbed behind the church. The negotiations went nowhere, and the congregation voted to stay put. Pine Grove made its stand.
Shortly afterward, Mason suffered a heart attack that required open-heart surgery, and his health was never the same. “He never came through right,” recalls Audrey Mason. In the winter of ’91, Mason was obviously ailing, but he continued preaching his weekly sermons right up until the end. “He was there on a Sunday, and I carried him to a hospital on Monday, and he died on Tuesday,” says his widow. “He wouldn’t give up.” The final song he performed from the pulpit, playing his guitar, was the old gospel standard, “Lord, I’m Coming Home.” She believes it was his way of saying goodbye to his flock: “Some of the members turned around and said, ‘He’s telling us he’s going home,’ see.”
Though he preached the fiery old way, Mason was known for his kindness not only to his flock, but to strangers passing through. He often let homeless people stay in the adjacent Sunday-school rooms. During a revival in the late ’80s, he met a young preacher named Elijah Byrd and his wife Joy. Byrd told him that he’d been denied ordination by a Pentecostal Holiness church because he had been divorced; he’d also been an alcoholic for years before he got the Holy Ghost. “I was in my car, and I had a cigarette in one hand and WMZQ [a Washington country station] on the radio, and I was going to a party to get drunk,” he recalls. “It wasn’t no thundering voice, and the earth didn’t shake like you see on TV. It was just a quiet, still voice that seemed to be speaking to me, saying, ‘Elijah, your time has come.’”
Byrd’s father had been a pastor at a Jesus Only church in West Virginia; his preaching, which could go on for hours, mightily impressed the young boy, but the word of God didn’t get through to him. Byrd spent his youth and early adulthood raising hell, and his father died before Byrd was saved. Mason became a father figure to Byrd; he took him in and let him teach Sunday school, and soon Byrd was assistant pastor. As leader of Pine Grove, Byrd has remained faithful to Mason’s vision, serving up a primitive incarnation of worship week in and week out, regardless of what year the calendar is on.
“We stay true to the Bible,” he says. “We don’t have to answer to anyone except God.”
Certainly, the Pine Grovers don’t care squat about what people may think about them or their little church. Ramsey says the location at ground zero in Mall Land is not only a blessing but a sign from God. “When I look out and I see the development and all the people, I see a harvest field,” says Ramsey. “I see souls that need Christ. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the mall or on the street or in the Wendy’s or buying gas at the Mobil station. It’s a harvest field, and I see us sitting here as a lighthouse on this corner. We may not be big and bright like the other churches in the area, but that’s fine. We’re still there representing Christ, and our arms are open to anyone that would like to come in and be a part of this family.”
It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the last day of the biggest shopping weekend of the year. The bargain-hunting, gift-buying frenzy shows no signs of abatingI-95 spews gas-guzzlers like a cut artery at the Dale City exit. Out of the interminable line of traffic heading for Potomac Mills, an occasional car or pickup gets loose from the pack and descends into the gravel parking lot. For the Pine Grovers, this is just another Sunday to praise the Lord.
At this morning’s service, Ramsey is giving the sermon, and Byrd humbly takes his place as just another parishioner. He still seems drained from last week’s ferocious oratory, in which he expounded for nearly an hour about a passage from 2 Kings, the story of a woman who’s hounded by creditors and beseeches Elijah for help in her predicament. “I’m telling you somethingWe have nothing!” he railed. “We are just like that little lady that went before Elijah. We have nothingabsolutely nothingwithin ourselves, to go out to buy those who are lost in sin out of the slavery of bondage.”
Byrd wept throughout much of the sermon, which also included a testimonial of his own former bondage to booze. “I’m talking about the old accuser, that evil one, the devil who has come into our homes and our lives to rob and steal and to kill all that is most precious in our lives!” he shouted, the blood vessels in his neck flaring. “Friends, I can stand here and tell you no matter how much money I spend for vehicles or for my home or for my clothing or for food on my table, those things are not the most precious in my life.”
Though Byrd’s preaching is hellacious, there’s no cult of personality to go with it. So this morning, when he sits in the pews, he’s no more impressive than any other member. As was Mason, who is remembered with affection, Byrd is not revered but simply respected.
As usual, there are about 20 or so parishioners scattered in the pews. Audrey Mason and Sister Ethel Davis couldn’t make the service, probably due to holiday trafficwhich around here is worse than any natural disaster. The Polish man is nowhere to be seen; maybe he found another shelter from the cold for the daylike over at the well-heated mall. Ramsey is dressed in a spiffy gray skirted business suit, not the sort of outfit she wears to her job as a dental assistant. No, she’s got more important business than cleaning people’s teeth to attend to this morning. She’s got some souls to save, and time’s a-wasting.
“Jesus is about to return, church!” she rants, nothing like the calm, optimistic woman she is outside the pulpit. “And we need to get into the move of the spirit of the living God! We need to get our hearts tuned to that calling, brothers, and we need to be moved by those tender mercies. Not hard-hearted and stiff-backed. ‘Cause I’m gonna tell you what that’ll get you. That’ll get you a prime seat in hell!”
After her rousing performance, the collection basket goes round, but it yields only a few dollars. In all the most important ways, though, Ramsey’s sermon seems to have hit the mark. People move to the altar and kneel down and pray and sway and talk to God. This ritual goes on for nearly 15 minutes, and it’s as important to the congregation as the singing and the preaching.
Joy Byrd stands up from behind the piano to make an announcement. She says that she got a message on the Internet that some friends of the church are in trouble: The couple’s teenage daughter, raised on the Word since she was born, recently denounced God. “It has broken their heart,” says Byrd. “And it does break your heart to see anyone turn and walk away from God. We need to pray for her, church. This is spiritual warfare.”
But there is some good news as well. One of the newest parishioners, also a teenage girl, has declared her wish to be baptised. Even though the weather’s getting colder, she wants it done now rather than later, and the church will oblige her. The baptism will be held as soon as the church can find an available place. The girl will attend service next Sunday to make her intentions formal.
With the morning service done (there is also a 6 p.m. gathering), the parishioners mill about, hugging and laughing together. After the intensity of the service, it’s a cooling-down period.
Ruth Brown explains that she’s been coming here since last May, after her daughter brought her on Mother’s Day to get her back with the Lord. “I had fallen away and slipped back into sin,” she says. “I had driven by this church for 30 yearsit was just sitting right here, but I never thought I’d be a part of it. But once I was here, I felt the quickening, and I rededicated my life to Christ.” Like many of the current members, she’s a relative newcomer.
Nearby, Ann Williams says that she’s been a Pine Grover for seven years, having joined shortly before Mason died. A gentle, softspoken woman, she had formerly been a member of a Pentecostal church in Colonial Heights, Va., outside Richmond. “I got highly upset at the church there, because they said I’d have to speak in tongues before I knew that I was saved,” says Williams. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, how could that be so?’ So I quit going there.” Then she moved to the Dale City area and found sanctuary at Pine Grove, where you aren’t judged by anyone but God, where all that matters is that you are moved by the Holy Spirit.
Williams waves to a woman loitering nearby. She has Down syndrome, and all morning she has been cheerfully singing along to the hymns from a front pew, exhorting the parishioners when their energy lagged. After the service, she made her own special announcement, joyfully waving a paycheck she earned recently, and the congregation applauded her achievement.
“This is my daughter, Bonnie,” says Williams proudly. “She’s like Mama. She’s not backward when it comes to the Lord.”
Outside the windows of the church, the last leaves of autumn rustle and fall slowly from the remaining old trees that still tower protectively over the building. In the parking lot, the parishioners’ cars and trucks sit idling in a line, pointed up the eroded slope, waiting for the endless line of traffic to open up long enough for them to make their way.
“Lord, sometimes I just stand in awe at the love that you show to simple little people such as us. Small and insignificant creatures. But you’re always performing miracles for us.”
Standing on the banks of a small pond, Byrd is giving thanks for the mercifully decent conditions on a bright, cold Sunday. It’s not much above freezing, and the December wind is gusting, but it’s fine weather for a wintertime baptism.
Earlier this morning, Byrd preached a sermon at the church, a subdued service attended by barely more than a dozen. Many regulars, including Sister Marna Witt and Sister Audrey Mason, were ill at home, and the Pine Grovers prayed for them to get better. Afterward, the congregation formed a car caravan that wound its slow way on service roads around Potomac Mills and through the rest of the superstores and strip malls.
Only a few miles from the church, the procession pulled into the pasture of a small farm behind a High’s store and underneath some power lines. Like Pine Grove, the farm is a piece of the area’s rural past that has somehow survived development and remains as a homely orphan. One of the parishioners, Carl Harold, fished and swam here as a boy, and he got permission from the property’s owner for the baptism. A hefty man with a Fu Manchu mustache and a John Deere baseball cap, he dates his time in Pine Grove back to the days of the Rev. Mason. His daughter Heather used to attend as a toddler and then lost interest in the church, as adolescents are wont to do. Recently, though, she began accompanying her parents to services again, one of the only teenagers in the congregation. A few weeks ago, she told her father that she was saved and wanted to be baptized.
Now Heather waits patiently beside the cold water in the bare landscape, where the only signs of life are some duck decoys bobbing on the pond’s wind-ruffled surface. Bundled in several layers of sweat clothes, she still trembles a bit in the chill. His back to the pond, Byrd faces Heather and the small, merry band of Pine Grovers. It’s been more than a year since the last baptism, and the parishioners are having their fun with Byrd, reminding him that it’s not only Heather who’ll be getting wet. Byrd returns the wisecracking and then gets serious. It’s a momentous event for a such a tiny flock to welcome not only a new member but someone so young.
“Lord, we give you praise and glory that this precious young lady has become your daughter already in the Spirit and now wishes, Lord, to make a public announcement that she’s laying down that old, sinful person and coming up a new creature in you,” says Byrd. “Coming up literally, O Lord, just saturated in you.”
From a small wooden fishing pier, Byrd reads a passage from the Bible about the divine importance of baptism. Then, with the help of deacon Dwayne Brewster, Byrd leads Heather into the waist-deep water. “Pray that God will send the Holy Spirit right down and fill her up from head to toe and from toe to head.”
On the banks, Joy Byrd leads the congregation in a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” as Byrd and Brown carefully dunk Heather backwards into the water. She comes up soaking wet with a cry of joy and surprisethe murky water’s even colder than
she expectedthen scrambles up the bank, where her father is waiting to wrap her in a blanket. Byrd steps out of the pond and speaks as the water trickles off him:
“Thank you, Father, for adding another soul to your camp.”CP